As seen in the post where I compiled picks from all those experts, a good portion of people throughout the country see this game as Drew Brees vs. Alex Smith. Pretty simplistic, but I see this game in simple terms as well.
Sure, there could be some unexpected dropped punts or other such physical blunders. The officials could make this game about themselves. The coaches could call trick plays that haven’t even been invented yet. And one of these types of plays or decisions will probably be pointed to as a major reason why whichever team won prevailed, but it’s impossible to prepare for any of those occurrences.
Here’s what we do know:
The Saints’ offense is better than the 49ers’ offense.
The 49ers’ defense is better than the Saints’ defense.
Both teams are so good at kickoffs that unless a crazy wind develops tomorrow (it’s not supposed to, but Candlestick weather forecasts can never be guaranteed), the return games will probably be irrelevant unless an onside kick is called by either coach. These are also the No. 1 (49ers) and No. 2 (Saints) teams in terms of net punting average, so in other words Ted Ginn and Darren Sproles are probably going to have to make their contributions on offense if they want to rack up all-purpose yardage. If the 49ers have a real advantage in special teams, it’s when attempting field goals of 50 yards or longer.
So assuming nothing weird happens in the game in terms of fumbles, drops, the refs or the coaches, the question becomes:
What’s the bigger disparity?
Saints’ offense > 49ers’ offense
49ers’ defense > Saints’ defense
Actually, since the Saints’ offense and 49ers’ defense are elite, it’s more which is worse — the 49ers’ offense or Saints’ defense.
Those holding back on picking the Niners disagree, figuring there’s no way the 49ers can score the 30 points or so it’ll take to close out New Orleans, regardless of the game’s location.
The crazy thing is the 49ers haven’t given up 30 points all season. The most was 27, against the Cowboys and the second time they played the Rams, but the Cowboys game went into overtime and the second Rams game was weird and Patrick Willis looked rusty and let’s agree never to talk about the second Rams game again.
But the 49ers have never played an offense as strong as the Saints!
True, but the Saints have never faced a defense like the 49ers’ except maybe the Texans in Week 3, and that game was a 40-33 shootout in New Orleans that the Saints won when they outscored Houston 23-14 in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers’ defense is good enough to hold the Saints under 30 points, especially at home. They might not hold the Saints to under 400 yards (the Saints’ offense holds advantages at every position except running back), but Brees gives defenses a couple opportunities every game to intercept his passes, and the 49ers will need to capitalize more often than not.
I’ve fallen off the cliff into full-fledged fan mode, which you probably already assumed. But I feel like the 49ers’ coaches are so good that to assume they won’t be able to keep pace offensively — after two weeks to prepare for the what may be the worst defense in the NFL — is an insult to Alex Smith and the rest of the offense.
The Saints’ defense isn’t just average or overshadowed by New Orleans’ offensive pyrotechnics. They’re terrible.
As great as the 49ers’ front seven is, the Saints are that bad.
Their defensive linemen are average, but their linebacking corps is the worst in the NFL. Jonathan Vilma’s riding on reputation, but his career’s almost over. JoLonn Dunbar, Jonathan Casillas and Scott Shanle are equally weak. The Saints don’t give up 5 yards per carry by accident, and there should be openings galore across the middle of the field for Anthony Davis (I meant Vernon, just making sure you were paying attention).
The weakness for the 49ers’ defense is supposed to come in the form of pass coverage, but I’d take Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver any day over Patrick Robinson, Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.
Both teams will feel each other out through a relatively low-scoring first half, sort of like the Saints/Lions game from last week. New Orleans will come out ready to put up 28 points in the second half, leading Brees to take chances and Payton to scrap the running game.
After opening things up with more passes than expected in the first couple quarters, late in the game is when the 49ers will commit to the run. Time will run out on the Saints as the 49ers’ pass rush — like the Niners’ run game — gets stronger as the game wears on.
Pick: 49ers 30, Saints 27